Serotonin: “A Happy Hormone”. A “Feel Good” Neurotransmitter.
Why is it that a bright sunny day cheers up our mood? As soon as we come out of the gym, or engage in any form of exercise, we find our spirits lifted? Or have you noticed a calming, happy feeling engulf us, as soon as we look at our old albums or pictures of our children?
A touch of a loved one, hugs from our kids, or even getting a massage from a parlor, makes us feel so good.
We often hear our doctors, coaches, and therapists encouraging us to develop healthy coping skills like meditation, massage, exercise, reaching out to a loving friend, eating a healthy diet, etc. to manage our day-to-day stress.
Well! There is a biological basis for how and why such strategies give us a sense of well-being or help us destress our bodies. They generate some neurochemicals in our bodies, which then cause us to feel good internally. One such neurochemical released during all the above actions is serotonin.
Serotonin plays a key role in various body functions, such as mood, sleep, digestion, nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting, and sexual desire.
Serotonin and serotonin receptors are important in regulating most of our brain functions, and any dysregulation of the serotonergic system can lead to many psychiatric and neurological disorders.
About 90 percent of our total body’s serotonin is produced by the cells lining our digestive tract, That may be why we call our gut our “second brain”, and platelets- blood cells, that handle blood clotting, also make some of it. Yet it is our brain cells that use most of the serotonin made by our body.
The deficiency of serotonin can lead to:
- Changes in our mood:
- Anxiety: research has shown that the brains of patients diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and OCD have low levels of serotonin.
- Other mental health-related disorders like Schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder also have an imbalance of serotonin.’:
- Memory issues: People with dementia may also have low serotonin levels
- Disturbance in sleep: Serotonin helps regulate sleep. People who feel exhausted or have difficulty falling or staying asleep may have problems with regulating serotonin.
- Sexual function: Some people with low serotonin levels may experience low libido, premature ejaculation, or other sexual dysfunctions.
- Concentration and attention: Serotonin is one of many neurotransmitters that support the ability to concentrate and learn new information. Some people with low serotonin may therefore have trouble with attention, motivation, or learning.
- Hyperactivity: In some people, low serotonin may cause hyperactivity, excess energy, difficulty sitting still, or difficulty sleeping.
Low serotonin levels may also lead to some bodily symptoms and may have a role in chronic pain, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, urinary incontinence, and even the inability of our blood to form clots.
Excess serotonin can also be a problem;
- It’s most often caused by combining medications that increase our body’s serotonin or upregulate our serotonin receptors, like antidepressants combined with certain migraine medications, or some illicit drugs and dietary supplements.
Signs and symptoms of excessive amounts of serotonin can range from mild (shivering and diarrhea) to severe (muscle rigidity, fever, and seizures).
Serotonin syndrome is a condition that can be caused by an excess of serotonin can be fatal if not treated and is a medical emergency that may need admission to an ICU.
So how can we maintain healthy levels of serotonin, of course, other than taking medications that our doctors may prescribe if we are struggling with clinical depression, anxiety disorders, or other chronic stress-related conditions?
1: Exposure to sunlight: Getting a good amount of sunlight during the day improves our serotonin level thus lifting our mood. Studies show it may elevate serotonin levels in people with seasonal and other types of depression as well.
2: Exercise: Steady consistent exercise can help raise serotonin levels. Thus giving us a sense of well-being as well as many other feel-good neurochemicals.
Diets that are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid, can give us good amounts of serotonin, as serotonin is made from it. Research shows if we combine tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates, they can increase their absorption and thus help our bodies to generate healthy levels of serotonin.
So consumption of carbohydrates alongside protein or foods rich in tryptophan is essential to give our body that extra boost of serotonin. However, we can stick to the complex carbs like whole-grain bread, pasta, and rice as opposed to simple carbs like white bread, white rice, etc.
- Milk contains α-Lactalbumin, which is one protein that contains relatively more tryptophan than most proteins. Acute ingestion of α-lactalbumin can improve mood and cognition in some circumstances, presumably owing to increased serotonin.
- Other foods rich in tryptophan are poultry, salmon, canned tuna, eggs, nuts, and chickpeas,
4: Visualization: Thinking about something that makes us feel good can help increase serotonin in our brain.
- visualizing a happy moment from our memory, a place we visited, a friend we met,
- thinking about a positive experience we had with our loved ones.
- looking at photos of things that make us happy, such as our pets, a favorite place, or a close friend.
5: Therapy/Counseling: Therapy can help ease the symptoms of a wide range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and trauma. Several studies suggest that therapy may also raise serotonin levels. For example, one study found that therapy increased serotonin receptors in the brains of people with major depression, anxiety, and OCD.(https://neurosciencenews.com/depression-serotonin-transporter-18385/)
Lastly, it’s also important to know that some of us may have a genetic tendency for a serotonin imbalance or dysregulation. Chronic stress left untreated for a long period may have also led us to have insufficiency of either serotonin or serotonin receptors. In such cases, seeking help from a professional, and even taking medications that help our body correct that imbalance, besides continuing some of the above strategies, becomes necessary in order to live a healthy, content, and a well-balanced life.